Iraqi Government Stands Clumsy and Disconcerted As Protests Turn Tragic

The month of October 2019 starts stained with blood for Iraq. After decades of regional conflicts, dictatorship, two US invasions, foreign occupations and a sanguine civil war that laboriously ended with the fall of the Islamic State group in the 2017 recapture of Mosul, Iraq finally believed itself equal to resume normal life.

Yet, as late as Monday, October 7, casualties resulting from clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces had reportedly reached over 100 deaths in a week. The demonstrations kicked off in the capital Baghdad on Tuesday, October 1, and have since swept over the country to its oil-rich south parts.

The United Nations called for an end to the “senseless loss of life” on Monday, as medics and police reports, gathered by Reuters since the beginning of the protests, showed that the death toll rose to 110. Government sources, however, said on the same day only 104 died in the clashes and over 6000 were injured.

The Iraqi security forces were caught off guard and heavy-handedly reacted to the sudden unrest – perhaps due to a rarity of peaceful protests in a country that remains mainly war-torn. On many occasions, tear gas and live ammunition were fired at the protesters, flaring up tensions in both sides.

The interior ministry denied “directly” shooting at the demonstrators, and rather accused “infiltrators” who it said have caused casualties among both the protesters and security forces.

The President of Iraq, Barham Salih, said on Monday that authorities were still going through “investigation procedures to find out the perpetrators behind the violence against the protesters,” according to the Iraqi News Agency.

“Our security forces, in its various forms, must defend and support the people,” the president also said on television. “They must firmly confront those who violated the constitution by attacking citizens and the security forces, and terrorizing the media.”

Yet many reporters said they had witnessed, besides tear gas and live fire, the targeting of protesters by security forces snipers who opened fire from rooftops.

The protests unexpectedly turned into the worst violence Iraq has to face since the defeat of the Islamic State group two years ago. It is also the biggest challenge to the government of Adil Abul-Mahdi, Iraq’s prime minister, who took office in October last year precisely.

Protesters say Abdul-Mahdi failed to meet their demands, as unemployment and corruption among the leadership swelled amid long-awaited promises. The unrest was organized on social media, and remains popular and without formal leadership. Its non-belonging to any sectarian or doctrinal movement —as both Shiite and Sunnite, among others, partake in it— also draws from its spontaneity.

The protesters say they only reacted to the country’s deteriorating economy, unemployment and poor public services, as even water and electricity remain scarce in some parts of the country.

In reaction, the government imposed a curfew on Thursday, October 3, and resorted to cutting the Internet in hopes of effectively moderating the protests. The curfew was lifted on Saturday, October 5 —as security forces still repress the demonstrations – but the Internet and social media use remain largely shutdown, although intermittently.

“It has now been over 100 hours since Iraq imposed a near-total Internet shutdown amid widespread protests,” NetBlocks, an organization monitoring cybersecurity and the governance of the internet, reported on Sunday, October 6.

The following day, the Internet was restored for a few hours, and users uploaded footage of the crackdown on social media, before all service went down again.

In a phone call with Adil Abdul-Mahdi, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed disquietude but said he trusted and supported Abdul-Mahdi’s government to restore security, according to a statement released by the office of the prime minister. Abdul-Mahdi said life was to return to normal.

On Saturday, October 5, Iraqi ministers gathered in a council that established a list of initiatives aimed at resolving the demonstration’s issues.

The list included allocating land and subsidized housing to low-income families and, among others, providing 150,000 unemployed citizens with a monthly stipend worth 170,000 Iraqi dinars —about 147 dollars— during three months.

But, to “ensure equality and speed of completion,” the government said applications for the stipends and other services listed by the council —such as volunteering to the army— must be filled online, whereas the Internet remains highly restricted to even middle-class citizens.